Essay contributed by Ellen Winston, MA, LPC, NCC, CAAP
I have a lot of letters after my name. Therefore, I must be an expert in my field. Or maybe they just look pretentious. Maybe I shouldn’t include all of them. Do these letters make me look stuck-up?
These are the thoughts that go through my head sometimes. I can only imagine that I am not the only professional woman that has these thoughts. And those are not all the questioning thoughts I have had recently. They are just the beginning.
To be honest, women’s voices and speaking were not something I had ever deeply considered, apart from being critical of my own presentation and speaking skills. I appreciate the need for women to have powerful voices, that is certain, but I had not given much thought to the different challenges that women may face in getting their voices heard, even as a professional woman who co-founded a business. But when Laura Greenfield, a family friend for over 20 years, began Women’s Voices Worldwide, Inc., I began to give more thought to the issue; and then, I began to have to market and promote a new product: myself.
Having recently moved to a new city, it became my responsibility to promote my company’s services, and therefore myself, in a brand new market. To do this, I essentially need to sell myself to people and tell them how wonderful, educated, experienced and valuable I am. So much so that they should in fact start paying me money to tell them how to improve their work! Sounds easy right? (By easy, I mean terrifying.)
Let me be clear that I do believe that I am knowledgeable, experienced and have a lot to offer professionally. Yet, I consistently find myself stumbling over the word “expert.” What makes an expert? Do I have enough years in the field to be an expert? Am I old enough to be an expert? Do I look professional enough to be an expert? What if they find out I am not an expert? (How “they” would do that is still a mystery to me… but that’s another issue.) This is how my thoughts cascade as I trip over the word expert.
One of my first endeavors in Portland got out to a very strong start, if I do say so myself. (Now, why did I need to add that modifying phrase? Even in my writing and internal monologues I find myself using self-deprecating or devaluing references. Sigh.)
I had a fantastic start to my first endeavor in Portland! I researched, found, and contacted a business that was doing very good work in my field but that I thought could do so much more. We met and I decided to write an unsolicited proposal to them about the numerous ways that I could help enhance their work. They agreed and we met again for some planning discussions. We agreed that I would do trainings for them. Hooray! Success! Look at me, I’m an expert!
Then things got… muddy. My proposed work and fees somehow morphed overnight into me being a regular employee for them at a pay rate less than half of what I normally charge. Numerous emails and phone calls happened, but none were very clear and I did not force the issue to make things clearer. Without fully understanding what I was agreeing to, I agreed to some sort of employment arrangement. (Life lesson – do not agree when you do not know what you’re agreeing to. Genius.) Overnight, I went from a highly paid, expert consultant, setting my own fees and hours, to a brand new, poorly paid, lowest on the totem pole, staff member working the hours they told me. What just happened?
I found myself stressed and unhappy beyond words. Literally. I could not put into words for several days the way I was feeling. I just knew that when I thought about this situation, I wanted to cry. Fine, I did cry. I spent several days talking to family and friends about this situation, trying to sort out and define the knot of feelings in my chest. After many hours of discussions, I realized several things.
First, I did not want to make this company mad by backing out of being a regular employee. I felt guilty emailing them even to say, “wow, not what I agreed to!”. I felt like I was being a bad employee, even though I didn’t want to be an employee! I didn’t want to inconvenience people who set the schedule or make them angry that I was changing my mind. Moreover, I wanted them to like me!
Second, I felt like I “should” do this because they were relying on me, even if it was for something that was not my role. I kept telling myself, “well, I really should…” and then finding a variety of reasons to do so. There is a saying in the mental health world: “you are shoulding all over yourself.” It means you are drowning yourself with expectations that you have for yourself or that you think others have for you, and it is causing stress and anxiety. In this case, I was covered in should.
Reflecting upon many of the conversations I had with this agency’s staff and directors, I realized that I used several phrases or ways of speaking that may have been devaluing or unintentionally undermining myself. Up-speak (ending a statement in a higher pitch, so it almost sounds like a question and something for which my older sister has been on my case for many years. Fine Lisa, you win). “So.” “I think.” “I feel.” “I guess.” “Um.” “Well.”
These modifiers and ways of speaking soften what we say, make them seem gentler and more appealing. Yet, they can also make us seem uncertain, hesitant, lenient, willing to relent. This is not the message I want to send when I am doing a business negotiation! Even if I am nervous or hesitant or uncertain, other people don’t have to know that! I generally would like to come across strong, confident, and assured, let alone when I am doing business negotiations.
These are issues that likely come up for everyone, male or female, to some degree. However, I strongly believe that being a woman influenced how I initially responded and then reacted to the varying issues in this situation. Being a woman, even a young (ish) woman, does not mean I am any less knowledgeable or, dare I say it (I do, I dare!), any less of an expert in my field. Working with people does not mean they always have to like me. I may make people mad. That is acceptable. I need to stand my ground and not say, “I feel this is the case,” but rather, “this is the case.”
Because I’m an expert.
About Ellen Winston
Ellen Winston received her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology Summa cum Laude from Washington University in St. Louis and her Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She also holds a certificate in Animals and Human Health from the University of Denver. Ms. Winston is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in Colorado, a National Certified Counselor (NCC), and is Certified in Animal Assisted Psychotherapy (CAAP). Ms. Winston has counseling experience in a variety of settings, including residential treatment for adolescents, substance abuse treatment for adults, school counseling for K-8, Head Start centers, early childhood education centers and daycares, home-based family therapy, and private practice settings. Ms. Winston co-founded Animal Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado (AATPC) in 2010, helping to create the unique programs, recruit and train staff and interns, conduct individual and family therapy for clients, and train professionals. Ms. Winston currently co-teaches AATPC’s online and in person training programs and manages communications and grant writing to foster AATPC’s mission to provide animal-assisted psychotherapy to people of all life circumstances and income level, regardless of their ability to pay. Ellen Winston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.